Plaintiffs Andy Thayer and Rick Garcia filed a lawsuit against the Chicago City Council demanding that they abide by the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA). The recently filed lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to force the City to abide by the Act at its next meeting scheduled for September 14, 2016.
Plaintiffs allege in their suit that the City Council violates the OMA by preventing members of the general public from attending Council meetings by packing the gallery and giving privileged entry to invited guests who mostly or entirely fill the council chambers despite showing up much later than members of the general public, effectively making the meetings closed.
The OMA – (5 ILCS 120/1, and Sec. 2.01) – states: “The provisions for exceptions to the open meeting requirements shall be strictly construed against closed meetings.”
Plaintiffs Thayer and Garcia further allege that the Council also violates the OMA by allowing no provision for public comment at Council meetings – “Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.” (5 ILCS 120/2.06, subsection g).
On May 18, Thayer and several other activists tried to enter the Council meeting to witness debate and votes on a deeply unpopular Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bill which would funnel $16 million in taxpayer money to subsidize a private developer to erect luxury hi-rise towers on prime real estate next to Lincoln Park. The luxury Uptown development would be within yards of many homeless sleeping underneath Lake Shore Drive viaducts who desperately need affordable housing alternatives.
The anti-TIF activists, despite arriving an hour and half before the scheduled start of the May 18 meeting, were not allowed to begin entering the Council meeting until an hour after it was scheduled to begin. At that time a handful were allowed to enter, with several other activists who had lined up early to attend still blocked from attending.
As Edward Burke, the politically connected, powerful chairman of the City Council Finance Committee put it at the May 18th Council meeting, “This (TIF) is an urgent matter we need to rush thru.”
The reason for their rush? On July 23, the 2015 Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) would take effect, forcing all TIF-funded developments to have a minimum of 20% affordable housing units. The Uptown TIF development has under 3% affordable units, less than even the 5% required under the old ARO ordinance.
If the judge finds that the City Council meetings violated the OMA, she could penalize the city for its breaking of the law by invalidating all of the decisions made at the meetings covered by the suit, the May and June Council meetings, including the unpopular Uptown TIF subsidy for luxury housing. “The court …may grant such relief as it deems appropriate, including…declaring null and void any final action taken at a closed meeting in violation of this Act.” 5 ILCS 120/3, Sec. 3(c)
“The Illinois Open Meetings Act requires that public bodies, of which the Chicago City Council is the most powerful in the State governed by the Act, to maintain access to the public, including the right to attend and comment on their proceedings,” said co-plaintiff Andy Thayer.
“The fact that the Council used their closed meetings to bogart thru a deeply unpopular TIF — taxpayer subsidy for luxury hi-rises for the wealthy — illustrates the very essence of why the Open Meetings Act exists. While most Illinoisans struggle with stagnant wages and the rising cost of living expressed in higher taxes, housing and health care costs, legislators of both parties try to shield themselves from public outrage as they ram through measures to help the already wealthy and well-connected.”
Judge Diane J. Larsen ordered that she will hold a hearing on the motion for the injunction two days before the next Council meeting. Judge Larsen’s hearing will be held at 10:30 am, September 12 at the Daley Center, 50 W. Washington Street, Room 2405.
The Chicago Defender wrote about this issue in a recently published story, click here http://chicagodefender.com/2016/07/27/chicago-is-not-broke-says-experts/ and visit me and post comments at https://www.facebook.com/ken.hare